FacebookTwitterGoogle+RedditEmail

The Grand Canal of Nicaragua

by

It´s getting close to that time of year again. Sometime soon a vicar of the Anglican Church will write to the Times of London announcing that he or she has heard the call of a cuckoo, deep in the English shires. Such bird song is said to announce the arrival of summer.

The cuckoo´s call is also a signal for journalists that the silly season is upon us; frivolous stories can get the editor´s blessing. Articles that would have been spiked at any other time of year make it into print.

I recalled this as I scanned the world´s news outlets for word on the proposed Grand Canal of Nicaragua. This water way, which doesn’t yet fully exist, holds the possibility of creating a deep sea shipping route linking the Atlantic and Pacific oceans. Nicaragua, besides having a Caribbean and a Pacific coast line, has the largest fresh water lake in the whole of Central America. And it doesn´t have the inconvenience of awkward mountain ranges between the lake and the oceans.

For centuries this topography has been the stuff of dreams. For some economists it spells comparative advantage. Lake Nicaragua (or Cocibolca), in the centre of the country, is a readymade canal gifted by nature to the people of this impoverished country. For others, including a good many ecologists, it is a risk far beyond reason.

Around the turn of the year the media buzz in Nicaragua was taken up by talk of an agreement about this venture between President Daniel Ortega and a Chinese telecom mogul, Wang Jing. Talks have now taken place and studies are already in motion to determine the best route for the canal. Different approaches to and from the lake are under in-house consideration. And the International Longshore and Warehouse Union claims that Russia is looking for ways to become involved. Despite this considerable uncertainty a figure of US$ 40 billion is the confidently quoted cost.

Now imagine my surprise when reading in British newspapers that the Chinese are proposing a 13000km (around 8080miles) high speed rail link. Forget linking two oceans. This jaunt will take in China, stopping at Russia and Canada before pulling into the USA. For those not familiar with the geography that means crossing; well, tunnelling under, the Bearing Sea between Siberia and Alaska.

We are all familiar with casino banking nowadays, so why be alarmed at gaming in the transportation industry?

So far we know there is a stake holder at the table called Grand Canal of Nicaragua. Word has it that another player is on his way, via a very long rail link. But history has already dealt out some of the deck to regular players in this game of chance. Who are they?

Italian born John Cabot sailed from England toward the end of the 15th century, hoping to find the North West Passage, a sea way linking the north Atlantic and north Pacific. He had in mind a route north of Newfoundland and south of Greenland which would eventually lead him to Japan. But that turned out to be his last voyage, he was never seen again.

Then the Portuguese Ferdinand Magellan sailed between the southern main land of South America and the island of Tierra del Fuego while sub contracted to the King of Spain in 1520. Although the Tehuelche and other indigenous people had likely paddled their canoes through the same passage long before Europeans arrived on the scene.

The 1848 California gold rush saw this southern passage become a busy place for shipping, carrying hopeful prospectors from the east and heading west. Then, Nicaragua made it onto the map of the world´s trading routes. There was no need to hit the wagon trail across the North America continent nor sail the far off southern seas. A relatively short sea voyage down the east coast of North America to Nicaragua´s San Juan River, followed by a stagecoach journey to the country´s Pacific coast, then a sail from Grenada going north to California was sufficient.

While Europe went to war in 1914 the US opened the Panama Canal for international shipping traffic. Before that the French had tried and failed, beaten largely by the forces of nature. A few years before the US had provoked civil disturbances in northern Colombia resulting in that country´s northern region of Panama declaring itself an independent republic. One JP Morgan became the fiscal agent of the new Republic of Panama and arranged the transfer of US$ 40 million for the right to build and a few other concessions.

Predictably, over the hundred years since the canal opened the size of ships has increased dramatically, as ship owners seek to gain economies of scale in the transportation of cargoes. Responding to this, Panama, in conjunction with a European consortium, is in the process of expanding the capacity of the canal by building an additional third set of locks to the original two sets. This and other engineering works will increase the size and number of ships using the canal.

While this is all good 21th century stuff the 15th century notion of using the North West passage is making a comeback. That´s entirely due to climate change. As the Arctic polar ice cap recedes the likelihood of year round commercial inter oceanic shipping advances and the North West Passage opens for business. Last year CBC News reported that 19 vessels had registered with the Canadian Coast Guard to make the transit. That´s a small number but the route must look favorable to the industrialized traders of northeast Europe and the emerging economies of northern Asia.

So the real players in this game of chance, besides the Grand Canal of Nicaragua, are; Expanded Panama Canal, the resurrected novice North West Passage, and the maverick China Russia Canada America Line. As you might expect in this latter day Malamute Saloon there are a number of onlookers. Depending on how the deck is dealt lies their future and fortune.

On the southwestern side of Nicaragua, cited as the canal´s contact point with the Pacific there is considerable wealth. Some of it is long standing, some of it is new money, some of it is domestic, much of it comes from outside Nicaragua. Whatever the impact of the canal, its envisaged air, rail and road terminals with associated services, those with the money will not be in want. They can stay or move. However, the opportunity of employment with useful skills for poor local people cannot be discounted.

The Caribbean side of Nicaragua does not have the same intensity of wealth and level of development as the Pacific. Nevertheless, the Caribbean culture enriches the country´s diversity, yet far from being economically that well integrated at a national level. The impact of an improved infrastructure with support services, similar to the Pacific side, is heralded as a significant and positive socio-economic driver.

But between these coast lines and to the east of the Cocibolca, lies a virgin, forest wilderness. Does that sound too bland? The international journal Nature (19April 2014) describes it differently.

“. . . the ancestral lands of many autonomous indigenous communities and some of the most fragile, pristine and scientifically important ecosystems in Central America.”

What the scientists have done in this article is to introduce the concept of value into what might otherwise be described as a crap game. So let´s rummage about for some tools – analytical frame works if you prefer -among   Karl Marx´s kit. His ideas of “use value” and “exchange value” will do for starters.

The southern Caribbean coast is not without urbanistion. The city of Bluefields has two universities. Nevertheless, in this so called wilderness live people, in disperse and family based rural communities, who lead lives in which use value is a major element. They cut trees to build homes. They gain protein from fish in the river systems that feed the lake and the few animals they husband. The land they till provides their families with grains and vegetables. These are commodities they use. Their neighbours have much the same so there is little value in exchange.

Of course the zone is not totally without trade. When they can, people do buy and sell products at market. Such goods as plastic sheeting and corrugated iron for house building, basics like salt and sugar, not to mention medicines and school books are on offer, sold and bought.

But theirs if a life where exchange value accounts for fewer commodities than are accumulated as use value. What the canal has is the potential, indeed the certainty, of bringing exchange value increasingly into the daily lives of poor people. The details of that impact are less clear.

Change in any society or community is inevitable. But the Grand Canal of Nicaragua is a huge stake holder. What chance does the North-South America migratory routes of the Mesoamerica Biological Corridor, not to mention the ancestral lands of the Rama, Garifuna, Ulwa or Miskitu people have when faced with a US$40bn stake?

Here in Nicaragua people use the expression “bajo la mesa” (under the table), meaning one off the bottom of the deck or some such underhand act. No independent, cultural, social or environmental impact assessment – only the in-house evaluation – is in the offing. So should we be alarmed about something bajo la mesa?

It´s not merely a question of exchange value bringing in new commodities, however beneficial, detrimental or trivial. Exchanges can and are made under the table in Nicaragua, not much different from many other places really. After all, we are dealing with the joined-at-the-hip political classes and global commercial interests, riding high on a cocktail of collaboration and unseen financial transactions. The much vaunted “invisible hand” is part of this body.

The voice of the poor goes largely unheard. But it is there and the shoots of discontent are calling out in the wilderness. The question is, will it attract sufficient domestic and international attention to let us see all the cards on and below the table?

Sam Gordon worked in a Belfast factory, then an engineer in the merchant navy, a trainer, researcher and co-coordinator of community projects in Scotland. A graduate from various universities, on a good he claims he’s a decorative artist and sometimes writer. Most days he’s a blacksmith, welder, and painter in Nicaragua.

Sam Gordon worked in a Belfast factory, then an engineer in the merchant navy, a trainer, researcher and co-coordinator of community projects in Scotland. A graduate from various universities, on a good day he claims he’s a decorative artist and sometimes writer. Most days he’s a blacksmith, welder, and painter in Nicaragua.

More articles by:
June 28, 2016
Jonathan Cook
The Neoliberal Prison: Brexit Hysteria and the Liberal Mind
Paul Street
Bernie, Bakken, and Electoral Delusion: Letting Rich Guys Ruin Iowa and the World
Anthony DiMaggio
Fatally Flawed: the Bi-Partisan Travesty of American Health Care Reform
Mike King
The “Free State of Jones” in Trump’s America: Freedom Beyond White Imagination
Antonis Vradis
Stop Shedding Tears for the EU Monster: Brexit, the View From the Peloponnese
Omar Kassem
The End of the Atlantic Project: Slamming the Brakes on the Neoliberal Order
Binoy Kampmark
Brexit and the Neoliberal Revolt Against Jeremy Corbyn
Ruth Hopkins
Save Bear Butte: Mecca of the Lakota
Celestino Gusmao
Time to End Impunity for Suharto’’s Crimes in Indonesia and Timor-Leste
Thomas Knapp
SCOTUS: Amply Serving Law Enforcement’s Interests versus Society’s
Manuel E. Yepe
Capitalism is the Opposite of Democracy
Winslow Myers
Up Against the Wall
Chris Ernesto
Bernie’s “Political Revolution” = Vote for Clinton and the Neocons
Stephanie Van Hook
The Time for Silence is Over
Ajamu Nangwaya
Toronto’s Bathhouse Raids: Racialized, Queer Solidarity and Police Violence
June 27, 2016
Robin Hahnel
Brexit: Establishment Freak Out
James Bradley
Omar’s Motive
Gregory Wilpert – Michael Hudson
How Western Military Interventions Shaped the Brexit Vote
Leonard Peltier
41 Years Since Jumping Bull (But 500 Years of Trauma)
Rev. William Alberts
Orlando: the Latest Victim of Radicalizing American Imperialism
Patrick Cockburn
Brexiteers Have Much in Common With Arab Spring Protesters
Franklin Lamb
How 100 Syrians, 200 Russians and 11 Dogs Out-Witted ISIS and Saved Palmyra
John Grant
Omar Mateen: The Answers are All Around Us
Dean Baker
In the Wake of Brexit Will the EU Finally Turn Away From Austerity?
Ralph Nader
The IRS and the Self-Minimization of Congressman Jason Chaffetz
Johan Galtung
Goodbye UK, Goodbye Great Britain: What Next?
Martha Pskowski
Detained in Dilley: Deportation and Asylum in Texas
Binoy Kampmark
Headaches of Empire: Brexit’s Effect on the United States
Dave Lindorff
Honest Election System Needed to Defeat Ruling Elite
Louisa Willcox
Delisting Grizzly Bears to Save the Endangered Species Act?
Jason Holland
The Tragedy of Nothing
Jeffrey St. Clair
Revolution Reconsidered: a Fragment (Guest Starring Bernard Sanders in the Role of Robespierre)
Weekend Edition
June 24, 2016
Friday - Sunday
John Pilger
A Blow for Peace and Democracy: Why the British Said No to Europe
Pepe Escobar
Goodbye to All That: Why the UK Left the EU
Michael Hudson
Revolts of the Debtors: From Socrates to Ibn Khaldun
Andrew Levine
Summer Spectaculars: Prelude to a Tea Party?
Kshama Sawant
Beyond Bernie: Still Not With Her
Mike Whitney
¡Basta Ya, Brussels! British Voters Reject EU Corporate Slavestate
Tariq Ali
Panic in the House: Brexit as Revolt Against the Political Establishment
Paul Street
Miranda, Obama, and Hamilton: an Orwellian Ménage à Trois for the Neoliberal Age
Ellen Brown
The War on Weed is Winding Down, But Will Monsanto Emerge the Winner?
Gary Leupp
Why God Created the Two-Party System
Conn Hallinan
Brexit Vote: a Very British Affair (But Spain May Rock the Continent)
Ruth Fowler
England, My England
Jeffrey St. Clair
Lines Written on the Occasion of Bernie Sanders’ Announcement of His Intention to Vote for Hillary Clinton
FacebookTwitterGoogle+RedditEmail